Letting Go(d): Buddhism and Bultmann

Today I showed one of my classes the episode “Footprint of the Buddha” from the classic series The Long Search. The first time I watched it, I was particularly struck by one of the ways host Ronald Eyre summed up a key emphasis of Buddhism. He sits in a wooden chair and observes that if he sits there for a little while, he may be quite comfortable, but after 24 hours sitting in the chair he’d be in agony, after doing so for 24 years he’d be a cripple, and in 240 years he’d be bones – and the chair would probably not be in great shape either. And so, although things have the illusion of permanence when viewed in the present, nothing really is. In Buddhism, even the gods are transient, so how much more everything in this world? And if there is nothing in the world that one can cling to, then one is faced with only one alternative, an almost unthinkable one: letting go.

My first thought on hearing this summary of Buddhism was how very much it reminded me of Rudolf Bultmann’s definition of faith (in keeping with the existentialist Christian tradition) as depending on nothing but God, as letting go of all so-called certainties, including doctrinal and religious ones, which turn out to be idols when we cling to them.

It is perhaps not surprising that those of us who have let go, who have surrendered, whether within the Buddhist or the Christian tradition, whether aware of particular teachers’ and theologians’ teachings and ideas or not, have shared a similar experience of being born again, of awakening or enlightenment. The experience itself is liberating and cathartic – and those of us who have had it are usually persuaded that it tells us something important about the nature of reality, even though the opinions on precisely what the experience offers in terms of concrete beliefs differs. That is as it should be, since letting go must include letting go of claims to certainty about such matters and the recognition that they are idols, or at least that they can become such if we fail to recognize them as being less than ultimate.

There is nothing to cling to. Do you have the courage to let go?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14901110476975182987 Johnny

    there speaks someone who has seen buddhism via a TV show and not a waking reality all around. This is a key teaching of Christianity – the parable of the rich fool expresses it well. This existentialist version of faith bears NO resemblance oF the Faith of the Bible, like an anchor, fixed on the certainties of God revealed in scripture. But as Bultann undermined that for himself, he left himself with nothing but an irrational leap. This s the opposite of Pauline theology with it’s great ‘therefore’. You are comparing 2 totally different things when comparing born again to enlightenment. Enlightenment in Buddhism means you will NOT be born gain. Nirvana is not heaven, there is no saviour, and it’s all up to you and your good works. n conservative Theravada buddhism a woman cannot be enlightened. She must be reborn as a man enter the monkhood, and even then the chances are slim. It took the Lord Buddha 10 reincarnations to reach buddhahood – western theologians think they can do it by themselves in 1!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Johnny, I would love to have a serious, intelligent conversation about this with you, not one in which you rattle off hasty (and apparently angry) posts so quickly that you cannot even get your words and names spelled right. Take your time, think about what you want to say, and make your point as clearly as possible, for the benefit of others who will read your comment. I’m not going anywhere.I’m not sure what your point was about the TV show. I explicitly said I was talking about something I saw on a TV show. If your point is that real life Buddhism differs from textbook definitions, I imagine the same could be said about Christianity. If I gsve the impression that I can speak about what it is like to live among Buddhists then obviously I cannot in the way that you can.Your point about “certainties of God revealed in Scripture” shows why you don’t appreciate Bultmann. You have yet to feel the force of what Biblical studies, archaeology, history, science and other areas of investigation have uncovered, making it impossible to treat things in the facile way that you do if one really knows the Bible in detail and in depth. But that of course is what makes it easy for so many religious believers to be fundamentalists: they shield themselves not only from the other evidence that would challenge them, but even from such evidence found within the Bible itself.Since you brought up good works, I wonder whether you have room in your conservative Protestant understanding for the things Paul says in Romans 2


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